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Buying a Phone Charger

I used to think there were three price-levels in Jordan:

  • The price for tourists and wealthy foreigners
  • The price for foreigners who can bargain
  • The local price.

One of my best purchasing moments came when I figured out how to bypass all the super nice phones that shopkeepers like to sell foreigners and by a 15JD no-frills model that suits me just fine and gets a nod of approval when I tell any local how much I paid for it.  Its as if they are taking note, “here is a foreigner who has his wits about him, it’s going to be hard to take advantage of him!”  (I wish!)

However, now I realize now that the prices here aren’t strictly: dumb  foreigner, smart foreigner, & local.  Here’s a story to illustrate my point.

Buying a phone charger

After graduation we were riding back to our apartment with our regular taxi driver.  He takes us to school every morning and runs us around on special errands when needed.  He’s a family man who has been driving taxi in Amman for almost 20 years.  We pay him well, but he treats us very well and trust him 100%.  He’s been a good source of Arabic practice (99% of our interaction is in Arabic), cultural insight and practical help in the last 9 months.  He’s kinda like an uncle to us and we really appreciate him.

Anyways, my wife reminded me that we needed a new charger for our cell phones, so I asked our friend if he knew of a place to buy one between where we were and our home.

“Brahim, of course!  I know a place in WaHidat.”

(He always calls me Brahim – short for Ibrahim.  And WaHidat is the Palestinian refugee camp near our neighborhood.

Me: “You are fine taking us there?”

Him: “Of course, but you should have told me before.  I have 5 chargers in my house.”

Me: “Thanks.  You are very good, but it doesn’t matter, we can buy one in WaHidat.  It will just take a minute.”

Him: “No Brahim, you are very good.  It is no problem.  You are welcome here.”

As we drove on we had a good laugh.  The word for charger is “shaHin” but I kept saying “SaHin” which means plate.

When we got to waHidat our taxi friend said, “Ok, please give me your phone.  Because you are a foreigner they will give you a bad price.”

I handed him the phone and 10 JD.  If I was in West Amman I might expect to pay 8 or 9 JD, but here I figured it would cost 4 or 5 JD.  I asked if I could go with him and he said , “Of course, but Brahim please do not speak.”  LOL – there’s a good commentary on my level of Arabic!

As with many things for sale here in Amman there were a number of phone shops clustered together on one corner.  We went to the first one and our taxi friend asked about a charger.  He obviously entered into negotiations with the shopkeeper on the price.  It ended with the Arabic sign for “no” on the part of my friend.  This is a tilt up of the chin with a cluck of the tongue.  Yeah it sounds and looks rude to Americans but here it’s the equivalent to shaking your head side-to-side.

I asked how much the shopkeeper wanted, “2.5 JD – expensive!”  I laughed because I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.

We went to 4 more shops but none of them had the charger we needed. In the fifth shop sat a man in traditional garb with a long beard and muslim hat.  There were no negotiations here, just a straightforward asking for a charger, examining of the phone and exchange of goods and money.  As he handed back my phone, change, and new charger I asked how much it was.

“1.5 JD.  That’s a normal price.”

We both laughed.

In the last 9 months I had thought I had made a lot of progress away from getting ripped off as a foreigner.  In some places (like Carrefour and Cozmo) the prices are fixed and there’s no bargaining.  But on a lot of other things here there seems to be plenty of room to negotiate.  Upon further reflection on stories like this one, I’ve revised my theoretical price-levels to the following:

  • The price for tourists and wealthy foreigners
  • The price for foreigners who speak Arabic
  • The price for foreigners who can haggle
  • The price for wealthy locals (may be equal or more than the one above)
  • The price for working class locals

That being said it’s difficult to make hard and fast rules on this.  Some things have negotiable prices (furniture, housewares, appliances, electronics, apparently cell phone chargers), but other things (like food, medicine, water) don’t.  Some shopkeepers seem to negotiate, others not so much.  If you know a shopkeeper well, you are better off assuming he is giving you his best price rather than insult him by negotiating.

After the purchase of the cell-phone charger it made me think – am I getting ripped off by paying 4 JD for something my local working class friend can get for 1.5 JD?  Or is he getting a well-deserved break on the price?  Should my goal as a comparatively wealthy (for Jordan, not by US standards) foreigner be to get the cheapest local price all the time, or is it valid for me to pay a little more because my wallet can bear it and the shopkeeper needs it more than I do?  Are foreginers who haggle seen as culturally saavy or cheapskates?  Let me know what you think!

Brain Dump

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

Blogging is a lot like working out at the gym. The longer you are away from the gym, the harder it is to get back into the routine. Excuses not to go become easier, the reality of muscle atrophy settles in, and you become convinced that returning to your old workout would be too painful and unsuccessful anyways. With blogging it’s more like brain atrophy, but the lame excuses are exactly the same.

Eventually you do go back to the gym. It just has to be done. The workout may not be great, but you just have to step foot in the building and do a few reps so you can start heading in the right direction again. The same is true with blogging, so below are the things I’ve had floating around in the back of my mind of late. I doubt any of them can live on their own as a full blog post, but I need to get them out of my brain so I can focus on writing something (anything) else. So here’s my brain dump, in no particular order (I’m sure my head will be sore tomorrow after this mental workout session):

Snow! Last week it got bitterly cold (for Jordan – hovering around 32 F/0 C. Brrr! And the humidity was high, so there were quite a few children (and honestly, quite a few adults) who were hoping for snow. The anxiously awaited for call cancelling school never came, but we did hear that some of the higher elevations saw some of the white stuff. Maybe next year for us.

You know you live in a small country, when . . . A shopkeeper tells you he is out of stock of something because a shipment was being held at port. You kind of figure, “Yeah right! Well at least it was a creative excuse.” You find out later that it’s because there are only 4 spots for cargo ships in the aforementioned port and all of them were being blocked because of a shipment of infected corn, causing all sorts of shipping backlogs in the entire country.

Water Woes – One of the most serious issues facing Jordan is the availability of water. Landlocked except for a very small strip of coast on the Red Sea & with very few permanent lakes or rivers, Jordan relies almost entirely on winter rainfall to renew aquifers and fill reservoirs. Oh, there’s also the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Dead Sea which are shared (and disputed) with Israel. But good luck drinking out of the Dead Sea!

This year there’s been a drought here. Rainfall in the winter was significantly below normal and in January reservoirs were only at 25% of capacity – a huge problem looking forward to this summer. So at the end of January Muslim leaders put out the call for all believers in the country to pray for rain. There is actually a special Arabic phrase used for this which I have written down somewhere but can’t find right now. In February the rains finally came and for two weeks people were overjoyed by the damp, dreary, overcast weather.

In the end reservoirs were around 47% capacity which people are happy with (for some reason 50% seems to be the magic number). Muslims were speaking about how their prayers had been answered. The Christian minority were also claiming that their prayers for rain had been answered. Hmmm . . . how do you sort that one out?

Teenage Weapons Manufacturers/Smugglers: Patriots, Terrorists, or Victims?

Would you find the following stories inspiring or frightening?

  • East German teens digging a tunnel back in the 50s/60s to smuggle food and weapons into occupied East Germany and people out into free West Germany right under the noses of Communist occupiers.
  • Jewish youth working in a bullet factory in 1945 to supply the militias preparing to overthrow the British occupiers and combat Arab resistance. The factory is hidden under a laundry facility where British soldiers’ uniforms are washed and due to lack of ventilation is always at risk of exploding.
  • Christian teens in the south of Sudan helping an armed resistance movement by assembling rifles to be used against the Muslim north. The activity takes place in the back of a local school, one of the few buildings in town with enough room to store the needed parts.
  • Palestinian youth smuggling food, munitions, and parts into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt and assisting in putting together guns and bombs to fight off the Israeli occupation. One wrong move could blow up the basement bomb factories and families living above.
  • American farmboys stockpiling muskets and blackpowder in haylofts during the American Revolution at great risk of burning down the barns used for storage. None the wiser, British soldiers are regularly sheltered in the haylofts overnight when passing through town.

Well? Which story stirs your sense of pride and patriotism and which one makes you shake your head in shock and dismay? Be honest now.

Actually, only one of the stories above is 100% true, the others could very likely have happened but are more like my version of historical fiction. Based on history, but not 100% confirmed. The true story is the Israeli youth putting together bullets to fight off the British in 1945. The story was presented on a History channel documentary as if these teenagers were heroes and patriots.

The Palestinian story above is also almost 100% true. There are definitely Palestinian teens involved in the smuggling effort and stories of them involved in bomb making (but these are not confirmed). So are these Palestinian teens any less patriots than their Israeli counterparts 60 years before? Or what about the other 3 stories? They sound plausible to me. Would you laud the American farmboy, Christian Sudanese youth, and the East German teen or be shocked at their involvement in rebellious (and dangerous) activity? Are they patriots, terrorists, or victims of their particular place and time in history?

On a broader scale, what determines our sense of pride or dismay at the stories we hear of youth involved in war and warlike activities?

The Case of the Missing Branches

A couple of weeks ago I returned from school to a strange sight. Our apartment is on the ground floor, but it’s sunken below street level. Our building (like 90% of Amman) is on a hill, and we benefit from this by having a rather nice outdoor space/garden that is separated from the streets on two sides by a tall wall. In the front of our garden are two trees that stretch above the wall and provide a good amount of shade and privacy from passers-by.

When I walked down to our gate that day something seemed strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. However as I stepped through it was instantly obvious – our trees had been butchered! Someone had hacked off a good 50-60% of the branches! There are also some smaller trees nearby that had been “pruned” back. Where there once had been lush greenery there was a blank white wall, open sky, and a clear view down into our garden from the street. My blood boiled instantly and my mind raced trying to figure out who would have done such a thing.

I put down my bag and went in search of our building super, Joe (obviously not his real name – he’s Egyptian).

Hmmmm . . . Ok – I’m actually feeling a full blown post coming out of this one . . . maybe it’s time to quit writing and cool down a little before my brain cramps up. Sorry you had to witness this horrendous little mental workout.  Hopefully it was more painful for me than it was for you. I’ll leave you in suspense on what happened to the trees until next time.  Hmm … is it carbs or protein that’s best after a mental workout?

Jordanians rally in support of Gaza

Here are a few way in which Jordanians have expressed their support of those suffering in Gaza:

  • Food and clothing drive – update: MommaBean reports that 25-30 tons were collected at the 7iber/Action Committee/Aramex aid drive near Cozmo the other day.  7iber also reports along with pictures of the sorting effort at the Aramex warehouse.
  • Blood drives
  • Sending a military plan to pick up 40 wounded from Egypt, however due to problems in Egypt they only retrieved 8
  • Businessmen raised 520,000 JD ($738,400) to provide humanitarian assistance, most of it will be administered by the Jordanian government’s official humanitarian arm which has been authorized to provide aid in Gaza.
  • Doctors and nurses staged sit-ins to protest the wounding of Palestinian doctors and medics in the line of duty
  • 50 Doctors have volunteered to go to Gaza to provide medical assistance if authorized to do so.
  • Thousands have participated in predominately peaceful protests.
    • One protest was apparently controlled by tear gas as police stood firm to prevent protesters getting too close to the Israeli embassy here in Amman.
    • 30,000 protesters gathered in a sports stadium.  Many chanted for the repeal of Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel
    • An Arab friend gave me an important vocab lesson – masireh (peaceful protest) vs. muDHahareh (riot).  So far the protests we have heard of here have been in the first category.
    • I’ve been itching to go to one of the protests, but have been warned by a handful of local friends to be careful (not just at the protests, but in general) as anti-American sentiments are on the rise.  I blend in well enough if I don’t open my mouth. But how likely is that?  I must say however, that we have kept to our usual routines and really have to seek out information on the unrest.

I have had several conversations  with locals over the past week about the situation in Gaza.  The same things usually come out:

  • Outrage over the civilian deaths in Gaza, especially the children.  Latest estimates place deaths around 400, about 10% of which have been kids.  I can’t emphasize enough how much this is upsetting to people here.  It’s not just a sound bite on the evening news.  It’s not just collateral damage that can be justified by some larger goal.  People are really upset about this.  And the question of what about Israeli casualties does not fly – only 4 or 5 reported so far and I don’t think any of them have been kids.
  • Questions about what Israel is really hoping to accomplish.  How will this end in peace when so many lives are being shattered?
  • Questions about why the US backs Israel seemingly carte blanche.
  • Anger towards George W. Bush.
  • I haven’t heard much about this on the street, but in the press there are growing questions about Obama’s ability to step into this mess in a helpful way.  His selection of staunch Israel supporter Rahm Emmanuel has fueled these concerns.

It’s a bit surreal.  A couple of weeks ago I relished the questions “Min wayn?” or “Ayya baladak?”  (Where are you from?  What is your country?)  These used to seem like great conversation starters.   But now I flinch a little internally, and have a few handy things to say in my back pocket if the conversation turns towards anything negative.  People are usually surprised to find out that I have actually lived in Gaza and that helps salvage conversation.  A lot of taxi drivers have been listening to the news more this week.  A number of times George W. Bush has come on condemning the Hamas rocket attacks as acts of terror.  This is usually not received favorably, not so much because people support Hamas, but because they can’t understand why the one (mostly ineffective) attack is classified as an act of terror and the other (much deadlier) is a justified act of war.

I guess I wonder too.  How many more civilians have to die?

Responding in English would be difficult enough, let alone in Arabic.

Just a taste of what I’ve been wrestling with.

Breaking News . . .

As I sit here typing, I just recieved news that ground troops have entered Gaza.  Officially to focus on the Hamas rocket positions.  We shall see.  Ominously, Iranian officials have warned that a land invasion will be a huge mistake on the part of Israel.  Hamas has apparently said that the Israeli army is walking into their planned trap.  (AP report here)  I wonder what stories will be told when dawn breaks 7 or 8 hours from now.  It’s going to be a very restless night in Gaza.

Please pray and act for peace.

Grounded for Life, Part 1

Did you ever get grounded as a teenager?  Or have some “privilege”  taken away?  Perhaps phone, or TV, or Nintendo privileges?  Or the ultimate discipline trump card – taking away the car privileges!  If you were like me you would stew, bristle, and complain (sometimes vocally), but usually – deep down inside – we all knew we had it coming to us.  There is often a very clear and stated reason for grounding or revocation of spec.ial privileges.  My parents used to make it clear that things like these (having access to the phone or car) were privileges and not rights

I lost my bike privileges once after my Mom picked me up on an unlit country road way after dark.  I had stayed hours too long at my girlfriend’s and was biking the 9 miles back in the dark without a headlight.  I remember that night clearly – my Mom pulled up, popped the trunk for my bike, and said absolutely nothing the entire car ride home.  I knew I was in for it.  I tried to make a case for it being a moonlit night, but the evidence was not in my favor.  I lost the bike privileges (and I think car and visiting the gf) for quite some time.  I had it coming to me and I knew.  Eventually I got those privileges back and I learned some important life lessons, but does the phrase “I was soooo grounded” mean anything to anyone.

I’ve been privvy to a different more troubling teen angst story recently.  One where a step-parent regularly grounds a teen for no stated reason.   It’s just “Go to your room and stay there until I say you can come out!”  Night after night, week after week.  It’s like Harry Potter at the Dursley’s all year round.  Oh there’s protests and shouts of “What did I do?”  But these are only met with stony silence, or “Because, I’m the parent and I said so.”  No reason is ever given for the grounding, nor any clear conditions for being ungrounded.  Crazy, right?  This sounds like where discipline crosses over into punishment and possibly even abuse.

It has come to the point where the teen is effectively “grounded for life.”  The nearest thing to an explanation for this has been “when you respect me I will give you some freedom” to which the response is “I will respect you when I have some freedom.”  I think legally the teen could leave home now, but the step-parent has made the situation such that the teen is 100% dependent on them financially, etc.   I don’t know if the term entrapment is correct, but besides school, the teen cannot leave.  There doesn’t seem to be any relative who can intervene or wants to.  From my understanding legal action has been attempted with no success.

What do you think?  Is there any hope for this teen and step-parent?  Is the relationship permanently wounded?  Is there anything that can be done to make things better?